Disney/Pixar’s ‘Coco’ Has Guitar at its Heart

From the Winter 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY BLAIR JACKSON

Never underestimate the power of a film soundtrack. When composer Marvin Hamlisch adapted Scott Joplin’s 1902 piano rag “The Entertainer” for the 1973 film The Sting, it launched a rebirth of ragtime that has barely subsided since. The soundtrack for Woody Allen’s 2008 Vicky Cristina Barcelona brought flamenco music into the mainstream for a while. In 2011, The Descendants suddenly made traditional Hawaiian folk music fashionable.

The new Disney/Pixar animated kids’ film Coco actually “has music in its DNA,” says director Lee Unkrich—it’s the story of a Mexican boy named Miguel, who desperately wants to play guitar to emulate his idol, a long-deceased mariachi star named Ernesto de la Cruz, but members of the lad’s family, especially his grandmother, are virulently opposed to him playing or even enjoying music. Many adventures ensue, including a remarkable journey through the Land of the Dead—a playful and quite beautiful extrapolation from Dia de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) iconography—and along the way lessons are learned, a fractured family comes together, and of course, Miguel gets to follow his dream of playing guitar.

Indeed, the fanciful nylon-string guitar once sported by de la Cruz is practically a character in itself, and there is delectable nylon-string guitar music stitched into Michael Giacchino’s score for Coco, which combines a traditional “Hollywood” approach with a rich infusion of Mexican and Latin flavors: mariachi, cumbia, son jarocho and many of the same sort of traditional folk inspirations that seeped into the work of Manuel Maria Ponce (who famously wrote pieces for Segovia) and other Mexican classical composers. Soundtrack recording sessions in Mexico and Los Angeles used a broad range of Mexican folk instruments, and the animators even took great pains to try to match the fingerings on the guitar depicted onscreen to the music on the soundtrack. (Additionally, there are a few original songs and some source music.)


No doubt the guitar-centric story and music will inspire some young people to follow Miguel’s lead and take up the guitar, and this fall, California-based Córdoba Guitars, a leading maker of Spanish-style nylon-string classicals, introduced a line of authorized Coco-inspired guitars playing off the same sort of Day of the Dead designs found in the film. The collection features two inexpensive short-scale Minis (under $200), a 7/8-scale model (under $250), plus the extremely limited (just 20 made) Coco x Córdoba Replica (like the de la Cruz guitar) with a skull-shaped headstock, abalone inlays, 24k gold detailing, and skull tuners. Perhaps a future great guitarist will get his or her start with this film.

And speaking of Manuel Ponce, here’s the excellent classical guitarist Tavi Jinariu playing part of of Ponce’s Tres canciones populares Mexicanas on one of the Córdoba Coco Minis: